The Next Battle in Higher Education May Attack Your Soul: Scholarships

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Stanford, resigned in August after an investigation found serious flaws in studies he had overseen for decades.

Claudine Gay, president of Harvard, resigned at the start of the new year, under mounting accusations of plagiarism dating back to her graduate student days.

Then Neri Oxman, a former star professor at MIT, was accused of plagiarizing Wikipedia, among other sources, in her thesis. Her husband, hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, was one of Dr. Gay’s most tenacious critics. And he has promised to review the records of MIT professors and its president, Sally Kornbluth, for plagiarism.

Attacks on the integrity of higher education have come fast and furious in recent years. The federal Varsity Blues investigation, in which wealthy parents were accused of using bribery and fraud to secure spots for their children at résumé-building colleges, sparked a debate about the merit and game of admissions. The affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard exposed how Asian American students must perform at a higher level to gain admission. And protests over the war between Israel and Hamas exposed administrators to accusations that they tolerated anti-Semitism at their universities.

Now attention has shifted to what could be the very soul of higher education: scholarship.

There are differences between the cases: Dr. Tessier-Lavigne and Dr. Gay were the faces of their institutions, while Dr. Oxman is a former faculty member, well known in her field of computational design. Defenders of Dr. Gay and Dr. Oxman say their use of words is minor and that they were not accused of stealing ideas. And unlike Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, they have not had to retract any documents.

But recent controversies have helped fuel skepticism that some studies are not as rigorous as they claim to be.

“It seems to me that this is a problem created by the universities themselves,” said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, which maintains a database of retracted articles that now numbers more than 46,000.

“They’ve tried very hard to avoid acknowledging how common misconduct is in academia, and what that does is give ammunition to sometimes – let’s face it – bad faith actors who want to undermine the trust or undermine the reputation of an organization.” institution”. Dr. Oransky said.

There’s probably more to come. a congressman committee has announced that it would investigate a “hostile takeover” of higher education by “political activists, woke professors, and partisan administrators.”

A cottage industry of fact-checking research papers had already emerged over the past two decades, including Retraction Watch, the Center for Open Science, and Data Colada, a blog dedicated to unmasking research based on bad data.

The number of retracted research articles has grown dramatically over time, to more than 10,000 retractions internationally in 2023, an annual record, according to Nature magazine, up from about 400 papers in 2010, when Retraction Watch began its work, Dr. Oransky said.

This may be partly because scrutiny has intensified, he said. Nature also blamed the rise of writing paper mills.

“What’s different this time is the levels at which this appears to be surprising: Harvard and Stanford,” Dr. Oransky said. “These are catastrophic events.”

Dr. Gay, professor of government and African and African American studies, requested some corrections to citations and citations in her dissertation and scholarly articles. But she kept her job and an outside panel cleared her of misconduct in the investigation.

A review panel found that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist, had not personally participated in or been aware of the data manipulation, but that “there may have been opportunities to improve laboratory oversight and management.” He agreed to retract three articles and correct two more.

Dr. Oxman, a celebrated architect and designer, apologized on social media for some failures in the attribution of her thesis.

Not everyone thinks academia is rife with deception.

Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said he was dismayed that in their attempts to defend Dr. Gay, some academics had suggested that plagiarism was common within their ranks.

“I saw some of these Claudine defenses as false confessions of misconduct that are not actually occurring at the level that her defenders wanted to suggest,” Dr. Voss said. “The ‘this happens all the time’ argument.”

Dr. Gay is accused of copying, with only slight paraphrasing, two passages from Dr. Voss’s work in her dissertation.

Dr. Voss said he was not concerned, as he had been her teaching partner at Harvard, helping to teach her quantitative analysis, and later her colleague in the same laboratory. “It would have been quite natural for her to borrow my ideas,” he said. “The Claudine Gay story will just force everyone to be a little more careful with subpoenas.”

The Internet and software like Turnitin, aimed at academic publications and research, can make it easier to detect plagiarism. And plagiarism watchers are waiting to see what the future of artificial intelligence will bring: more plagiarism or better detection?

But so far, that software has been used more against students than against teachers and administrators.

Many academics worry that politicians, donors and even other academics will use attacks on research as a pretext to persecute their ideological enemies.

“Broad suspicion of intellectuals and academics is a rich vein in American culture, and recent events have supported it,” Dr. Voss said.

Ackman, head of the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, was an outspoken critic of Dr. Gay’s leadership at Harvard, from her handling of anti-Semitism on campus to her support of diversity, equity and inclusion policies. The plagiarism accusations against her became part of her attack.

After Dr. Gay announced that she would resign as president but remain on the faculty, Mr. Ackman posted on “Students are forced to drop out for much less.”

Ackman declined to comment for this article.

It’s this type of attack that worries Jonathan Bailey, a copyright and plagiarism consultant who also runs the website Plagiarism Today. “There’s a lot of concern that the temperature has been raised and that the people doing the evaluations don’t necessarily have academic research or journalistic integrity in mind,” he said.

Just as new allegations emerged against Dr. Gay up until the day before her resignation, they continued against Dr. Oxman. On Thursday, Retraction Watch published a blog post. saying that his thesis ran about 100 words without citing or citing an article published in Physics World in 2000. The blog said it learned of the overlap from Steve Haake, a sports engineer who wrote the original article.

“I have never intentionally presented another person’s words or ideas as my own,” Dr. Oxman said in a statement emailed through a spokesperson for her husband on Friday, the day after the Retraction Watch article appeared. . “In the process of writing a 330-page dissertation, I missed a couple of footnotes and some quotes. If AI software had been available in 2009, it could have prevented these mistakes. Mistakes are simply a function of my humanity.”

Still, attacks on academic integrity are sure to continue. “While Chairman Gay’s resignation is good news, the problems at Harvard go far beyond a single leader, and the committee’s oversight will continue,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who chairs the Committee. of Education and Workforce of the House of Representatives, after Dr. Gay’s resignation on January 2.

There was a similar crisis of confidence at universities in the 1980s, when questions arose about plagiarism and fabricated data in scientific research, including at Harvard. Al Gore, then a Democrat from Tennessee, and Rep. John Dingell Jr., a Democrat from Michigan, among others, held oversight hearings.

Academics argued that research misconduct was rare and politicians argued that it was underreported, one study found. history published by federal agencies. Many who testified downplayed the problem or said that criminalizing scientific fraud would create a climate of fear that would impede research.

In the current dispute, Harvard responded through a defamation lawyer when The New York Post first accusations raised of plagiarism against Dr. Gay. Ackman, writing in

“I don’t want to say history is repeating itself, but there are shades of that,” Dr. Oransky said. Neither side, he predicted, is likely to back down. “There is a lot at stake.”

Kirsten Noyes and Alain Delaquérière contributed to the research.